Lately in my practice, I’ve been encountering an increased number of patients with hypothyroidism. This prompted me to write about this condition, especially since it can be well-managed with the combination of Traditional Chinese Medicine and conventional medicine.
What is hypothyroidism?
Hypothyroidism is essentially an underactivity of the thyroid gland. This gland produces the hormones T3 and T4. So what happens when your thyroid is underperforming? I like to think of it this way: These hormones are your body’s “jump-starters.” So when they are lacking, your body systemically “slows down,” and you may experience signs and symptoms including a slow metabolism, weight gain, cold intolerance, facial puffiness, forgetfulness, a slower heart rate, slower speech, menstrual changes, and fertility and sexual problems.
How is it diagnosed and treated?
Hypothyroidism can be diagnosed with simple blood tests. Typically, your doctor will measure your TSH and free thyroxine (T4) levels, and sometimes T3 and reverse T3. Anemia is often present, and can be diagnosed with blood tests as well. Hypothyroidism is treated with L-Thyroxine (synthetic T4), T3, and/or cytomel, and your dosages will be adjusted until your TSH levels are in the mid-normal range.
What is hypothyroidism in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?
There are a few etiologies of hypothyroidism according to TCM. Referring to my previous analogy, the thyroid is a “jump-starter” for all bodily functions. So although there are multiple causes, they are all typically a “deficiency” condition.
Spleen Qi Deficiency
The most common etiology I see in my patients is “Spleen Qi Deficiency.” In TCM, the Spleen is in charge of receiving food and fluids we ingest, and transforming them into useful nutrients needed to fuel our body. Left untreated, “Spleen Qi Deficiency” can worsen into “Spleen Yang Deficiency”. When the Spleen underperforms, you might experience fatigue, low appetite, and generally feel “slow.” Untransformed fluids will build up, causing weight gain, puffiness, and constipation.
Using acupuncture and Chinese herbs, I will usually boost the Spleen’s energy so it can better perform its function of transforming nutrients into energy. This can be roughly translated as boosting and strengthening the digestive system. Spleen 9, a point located on your lower leg, is a common point for treating hypothyroidism. You can even massage this point on yourself at home!
Liver and Kidney Deficiency
This is another common etiology I see in my patients, but with slightly different signs and symptoms. The Liver and Kidney in TCM are highly involved in blood production and the reproductive system. Patients with this condition may have anemia, fertility and sexual problems. Women may experience a change in their menstrual cycle, such as amenorrhea (absence of menses) or metorrhagia (heavy menses). In TCM, a lack of blood can manifest as dry skin, hair and a feeling of coldness.
The Connection Between Hypothyroidism and Celiac Disease
Research has shown that many people with hypothyroidism also have celiac disease. Although the relationship is not entirely clear, researchers propose there is a link, because they are both autoimmune diseases. If you have hypothyroidism, you may feel better by eliminating all or some gluten. I would recommend eliminating gluten for 4-6 weeks, and then slowly reintroducing it back into your diet.
Diet is so important!!
Diet is essential to the maintenance of hypothyroidism! I often recommend patients eat warm, cooked foods that provide nourishment, yet are easy to digest (such as grains and legumes) and to avoid foods that tax the digestive system (such as dairy and sugar). Since diet is so important, we consulted the amazing Amina AlTai, health coach and wellness professional!
“Hypothyroidism can be greatly impacted by the foods we eat,” she says. “Generally speaking, hypothyroid sufferers should be wary of cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, kale and broccoli. These foods, though very healthy for some, contain goitrogens which can prevent the absorption of iodine—a much needed mineral for healthy thyroid function. For my hypothyroid patients, I commonly recommend a regimen that includes iodine-rich foods such as sea vegetables. Kelp, arame, hiziki, kombu and wakame are all iodine-rich options that can be worked into salads, buddha bowls or as great sides. They contain anywhere from 10-2000 percent of the recommended daily value of iodine, so they’re perfect foods for thyroid support.”
Dr. Sarah Emily Sajdak, DAOM, L.Ac is a licensed acupuncturist and owner of Aquarius Acupuncture, PLLC which is an acupuncture and Chinese Medicine clinic in Greenwich Village, New York. She received a Doctorate in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, and is currently earning a specialization diploma in dermatology. She is nationally board certified (NCCAOM) in traditional Oriental medicine, acupuncture, and Chinese herbal medicine, and maintains state licensure in acupuncture for both California and New York. Dr. Sarah specializes in treating migraines and other headaches, as well as overall pain management.